Changing Ambition in the Wettest Place on Earth
Each day, Lah slips across the marble floors of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort where she works in the same green-toed black flats. She moves with gentle confidence, draped in the traditional dress of her Khasi tribe: one piece of fabric crisscrossed over her chest and pinned on each shoulder and then falling in a straight line to her ankles. Her dark hair sashays like a sweeping broom along the curve of her spine, her cheeks sloping from the regal ridge of her nose.
When she spared a few minutes one winter morning to sit on a bench in front of the resort to talk, her voice was gentle and smile light, like a sheet billowing dry in the wind.
“I like my homeland, it’s my motherland,” she said. “I like small villages, not towns or cities. Living here is so simple and quiet.”
In Lah’s village home, Laitkynsew, there is only one road. It starts in Shillong, the capital of the tiny state of Meghalaya tucked into India’s northeast, and scythes its way through the jungle-swaddled East Garo hills before dissolving into dust on this crest from where, on a clear day, you can see the sunken delta of Bangladesh.
Along the one road, a white Jesus hangs in the stained glass windows of the megalithic Presbyterian church. Bright clothes string between cement homes the colour of ripening oranges. Tin shacks sell thimble-size cups of tea.
Men in worn t-shirts pound metal against stone to construct a new school beside the blockish government hospital. Women balance firewood-filled baskets against their backs by straps pressed into their foreheads. School children in forest green vests and oversized backpacks trudge up the hill towards the most prominent landmark in the village: the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort.
The holiday resort was founded in 2000 by Carmela, a Laitkynsew native, and her South Indian husband Denis. Carmela, whose parents also grew up in Laitkynsew and grandparents in a neighboring village, remembers when the community had no electricity but was instead a bustling marketplace.
“When I was small, it was quite prosperous,” she said. “There was free trade between Bangladesh and India, but after the Bangladesh war in the 1970s, they closed the border, and the market shifted to the city.”
Years later, Carmela and Denis met while Denis, on holiday, was staying in a convent where her sister was a nun. They became friends, writing one another for five years while she stayed in Meghalaya and he worked in Delhi, until marrying.
Together they moved to the south of India then north again, raising their three children in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. Finally, in 2000, they returned to Laitkynsew with a vision to start a holiday resort to meet two needs: growing tourism and lack of employment among the villagers.
Meghalaya boasts not only the title of the wettest place on earth, averaging 1200 cm (39 feet) of rainfall per year, but also the phenomenon of ancient living root bridges.
For centuries, locals have crafted tree roots into self-sustaining and naturally expanding bridges that are as much works of art as practical footpaths. In recent years, word of these incredible bridges has spread, drawing international visitors.
“Many people came to visit, but had no place to stay,” explained Carmela, sitting at a table outside the resort during an afternoon lull in business. For while attractions were drawing visitors to Laitkynsew, failing industry and growing unemployment were pulling locals away.
“Most young people get education and go to the capital because there are no jobs,” said Carmela. “This started as an example of how to earn livelihood in good ways.”
The resort’s first five years were a struggle. “We built on a bank loan with very little money,” she said. “We couldn’t pay the salaries of workers. It was very difficult.”
Slowly but surely, the resort began to attract attention and draw more visitors until, after 10 years, Carmela and Denis could clear their loans. But although tourism at the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort has flourished, other major industries in the area are still floundering.
For centuries, Meghalaya was the centre of coal mining and cement production in India. In 1841, Welsh missionary Thomas Jones brought Presbyterianism to the hills – and also taught the local Khasis to burn coal to fuel their factories, producing cement that the British in turn used to make limestone and build their capital, Calcutta. Over 175 years later, cement production was still one of the most prized industries in the area.
This changed in the summer of 2014. Carmela explained how, because of health hazards suffered by miners, the government shut down the coalmines. Lack of coal caused the cement factories to go bankrupt, resulting in the loss of 5,000 jobs for locals that have yet to replaced.
In the face of these hardships, Lah is one local who is grateful to still have a job.
Lah, the oldest of five children, studied until 12th standard at a Catholic school in the neighboring larger town of Cherrapunjee, where her mother also studied. Lah wanted to be a nurse, but in 2010, her mother died, and everything changed.
“I had to look after and take responsibility for my family,” she said. She began working at the resort cleaning the facilities, servicing the rooms, and serving food. Two years ago, Lah also began entertaining the guests by singing local songs in the evenings.
Every other night as the sun swelled into an ochre orb, a group of young men trooped up the hill from the village with a guitar. While dusk settled, smoke unfurled from the burning bamboo embers of the bonfire outside the resort towards the village. The hills faded into shades of black as villages blinked to life. Above, the sky unfurled unfathomable swaths of stars.
Inside when Lah began to sing, she aged beyond her years. Her voice, rich and earthen, confidently filled her lungs and the air around her, one hand swinging by her side in rhythm with her breath. The room of tourists from India, Germany, and the UK were silenced by the mesmerizing and mournful Hindi love song until bursting into applause at its end.
At the close of the night, Lah, flanked by the young men, bowed and thanked the audience before leaving. She quietly chatted with her friends, slipping in an occasional well-earned smile as they wove their way into the cool darkness and down the one road towards her home.
When asked what she would like to do in the future, Lah was uncertain. “I am not planning where to go and I don’t know what I’ll be,” she said. “My ambition is changing. But I'm happy in the work here.”